17 May, 2007

Everything I care to write about the 2008 election

It's a shame that I can't have an extra year's worth of peace. Every day I stumble across some nonsense about who's up and who's down in the presidential race, or how the states are jockeying to become more "relevant" in the the primary contest, or for that matter people's opinions about the candidates. What's worse, something inside me relishes it, and it isn't something holy, I promise you that. The Republic struck me as quite healthy back when presidential campaigns were shorter and a president had at least three years before we started thinking about his replacement.

Of course, the Republic strikes me as fairly healthy now, in spite of the increasingly political atmosphere. That surprises me, considering the enormous amount of cynicism and dissatisfaction making the rounds of the internet, the newspapers, the radio, and... well, everyone I know and everything I read, it seems. I'm not usually the optimist on anything, and I certainly don't agree with the way the country's been run lately. That doesn't mean the Republic is unhealthy though. Apparently, the only way to become an optimist in politics is to accustom oneself to the fact that one's opinions are generally held to be foolish, then to hold stubbornly to these foolish opinions while the wise rage angrily one against another.

You can rest assured that I won't waste your time with my opinion on which candidate would make the best president, or even on what positions my ideal candidate would endorse in his or her platform. No one wants my opinion anyway, which is why my preferred candidate hasn't won his party's nomination since... um, 1984. And I was too young to be blamed for my conventionalism back then.*

That said, I do want to give some attention to the notion that it's better not to participate than to participate in a process that is flawed and leads to injustice. What follows is a restatement and development of a comment I left on one of Brandon's entries some time ago (which Brandon followed up on) and never really got around to fleshing out until now.

So, here goes. When I was young and studied Latin, I came to admire Cicero. I have the impression that he stated the opinion that in a republic, it was not merely a right to participate in politics, but a duty.** Cicero believed in virtue, and held the opinion that virtuous men must participate in politics, or else resign themselves to be ruled by the wicked.

Cicero did not merely express this opinion but followed through with it, perhaps in vain. He opposed the dictator Sulla with some success, and shut down the would-be dictator Catiline with a great deal of success. His opposition to the triumvirate of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus, by contrast, proved fatal. I've read a bit of Cicero's work and he never struck me as self-interested or cynical, even though the times he lived in seemed to demand self-interest and cynicism. Cicero's writings impress me as those of an idealist struggling for notions of virtue, decency, and honor. I may be wrong, though; I'm no scholar of the ancient world.

I say Cicero struggled, "perhaps in vain" because the Roman Republic really collapsed around him in his later years, when he was a Senator. Cicero died at the hands of assassins sent by Mark Antony, an erstwhile dictator who, using the wealth he acquired on military campaigns with Cæsar, could patronize the people. Cicero could afford no such thing, even if he had wanted to. As near as I can tell, Cicero reviled the very notion of buying the people's support through patronage, the way the triumvirs did, as had Sulla, Catiline, and later the emperors of Rome. It's always a bad sign when politicians win elections by purchasing citizens' votes.

The reason I mention all this is that, as far as I can tell, in this country the citizens are still the ones doing the buying, and that doesn't strike me as bad at all. I have read several times that Americans spend more on Easter candy than on presidential elections. (George Will harumphs a lot about this.) This is usually cited as evidence that there isn't too much money in politics, but if you ask me it's evidence that there's too much money in Easter candy. I have spent perhaps $5 over the last two or three years on Easter candy. A month or two ago, I spent $25 supporting one of the major candidate's political campaigns. In 2004, I spent $10 on another candidate from the other party. That's it. So I've spent more on politics than Easter candy by a ratio of about 7 to 1. Someone, somewhere, is more than making up for that difference. A lot of someones, actually.***

If Cicero was right, then we have a duty to participate in government, and that includes sponsoring presidential elections. This Republic remains a government by the people. As much as I find it depressing that the campaign has already started, and that my favorite candidate is likely to lose again, and that Americans are spending so much more on Easter candy than on presidential elections, none of that discourages me so much as the cynicism which so many Americans have confused for "enlightenment."

If a government is elected by the people rather than appointed or inherited, then the people are responsible for the government, and deserve the ultimate blame (or credit) when things go wrong (or right). That means you.

Consider the virtuous voter, defined as someone who prizes and pursues virtue above all else, without necessarily attaining it, rather than prizing and pursuing something else (money, say, or power). If the virtuous abstain from voting, then who is left to vote? Do you believe that corrupt and self-interested people are likely to elect a government that is honest and just?

I am especially annoyed at the notion that lobbyists and special interest groups are to blame for "this mess we're in." Look: we are a nation of 300 million people, with a government whose budget runs into the trillions of dollars. We have all of 535 representatives in Congress, which averages 560,000 or so people per representative (little r). If a hypothetical representative were to dedicate every moment of one year to speak with each of his/her hypothetical constituents, without allowing for sleep, food, or bathroom breaks, s/he would have less than one minute to listen to each constituent's concerns. Factor in the time each day to sleep, eat a simple meal, and run to the bathroom, and you'd have less than half a minute to air your concerns. Did I mention that this hypothetical representative also has to show up in Congress, debate issues, and vote on occasion?

Given the massive ratio of constituents to representatives, and the immense variety of opinion inherent among such an unwieldy group, democracy ain't going to happen at this level, and unless my history is mistaken, democracy was never meant to occur at the federal level in this country. To wit, the Electoral College. Lobbying and special interest groups are an adaptation that assists the democratic process. They may need reform, but they are not intrinsically evil; to the contrary, like unions, their organization gives a voice to those whose individual voices would be drowned out by the major players.

I do not marvel that bad things transpire in our government. Look around the world; bad government is par for the course. (Watching The Last King of Scotland helps to reinforce this opinion.) Rather, I marvel that our government does as good a job as it does, considering the size and diversity of this nation.

It is absurd therefore to suggest that the parties present bad candidates because the virtuous are participating too much in the political process, or even to imply it by saying that the virtuous should abstain from elections. Maybe the fact that we spend more on Easter candy than on presidential elections explains the supposed inadequacies of the candidates that the parties offer us. Certainly things aren't so bad as they were in Cicero's day. To the contrary, citizens are still funding the politicians in this country, rather than the other way 'round.

Вот это всё! That's all I wanted to say! If you want to know whose campaign I have decided to support, don't look for that here; I don't want that sort of thing on this weblog. You can either visit Hattiesburg and look for the bumper sticker on my car, or you can scour some of the excellent weblogs I've linked, since I've discussed it on at least one. (The poor bloke made the mistake of asking, and learned his lesson, I suspect!)

* I mentioned that the only candidate I preferred who actually won his party's nomination was Reagan, back in 1984. Yes, I'm old enough to remember it. Hey, I'm old enough to remember Jimmy Carter's administration!**** In 1984, even Reagan's opponent (Walter Mondale) voted for Reagan; he just won't admit it. Okay, maybe Mondale didn't vote for Reagan, but you have to admit that a twelve year-old in 1984 can't be blamed too much for loving Ronald Reagan. You might blame him for not repenting it today, but that's your problem, not his. I'm not repenting it.

** Alas, I cannot find any exact quotes to this effect, and my memory isn't so good that I remember them. I had a bunch of Cicero quotes once, though, so I can't be barking entirely up the wrong tree.

*** This assumes that the statistic about presidential spending and Easter candy is true. It might well not be. It would be delicious if not. Actually, it would be pretty delivious if it were true, too, considering all the candy that's getting eaten.

**** And I'm proud of being that old!


Clemens said...

Proud of being that old?!! Hey, I can remember my father coming home and telling us he left work early so he could go over and listen to a speech by President Eisenhower. I can even remember Sputnik and the Hungarian Revolution - they are the first world events that I can remember in fact.

Cicero was a master of rhetoric and could effortlessly achieve any effect he wanted from an audience. So its hard to say if the man is truly reflected in his writings. Nevertheless they have remained popular, I think, because they do express truths we need to hear about a Republic.

BTW, the guy who wrote 'Pompeii' has just written a novel about Cicero that is getting good reviews. I think it is called "Imperium."

jack perry said...

Proud of being that old?!! Hey, I can remember my father coming home and telling us he left work early so he could go over and listen to a speech by President Eisenhower.

I'd be proud of being that old, too.

I'll look for that novel, and as long as it doesn't portray Cicero as some sort of coward, I'll probably be happy.